A crucial part of Black history sits hidden underwater amid the ruins of slave ships that sank during voyages. A group of marine archaeologists, known as Diving with a Purpose, has taken on the task of viewing those artifacts and bringing the untold stories they represent into the light.
Two of the group’s founders, Albert José Jones, professor emeritus, marine and environmental science, University of the District of Columbia, and Jay Haigler, a master scuba diver trainer, will speak Thursday evening in an online talk presented by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. They will trace the organization’s 15-year history, which has included expeditions in Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and Florida and recovering relics from slave ships as well as investigating aircraft flown by African American pilots in World War II.
A Korean War veteran who learned to dive during his time in the service, Jones formed a diving group that eventually became the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers, of which Haigler was a member. Diving with a Purpose was an outgrowth of the Divers.
Both Jones and Haigler were called in after another organization, looking for the wreckage of a Spanish treasure galleon, discovered the Henrietta Marie, a British slave ship that sank off the coast of Florida around 1701.
“We were shown the artifacts, and it moved us so much that we decided to raise money to put a memorial on the side of the Henrietta Marie, and for years we made an annual pilgrimage to that plaque,” Haigler said. That led to the more ambitious project of documenting the wrecks of other ships.
Jones recalled, “Many of us got upset and cried when we saw the Henrietta Marie. After that we had a meeting and decided we needed to do something. We need to honor the people who were on those ships so that they wouldn’t be lost. We decided that we needed to be trained properly to do this. We don’t want people down there with picks and shovels destroying 100 years of history.”
During 2015 Diving with a Purpose was part of a major effort, directed by the international Slave Wrecks Project, to document the remnants of the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese ship that sank off Cape Town in South Africa in 1794, its enslaved passengers bound for sugar plantations in Brazil. Researchers believe this was the first time wreckage was recovered from a ship that went down with slaves aboard. Artifacts were eventually displayed at the Smithsonian.